The 23rd congress of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) commenced in Kannur, in northern Kerala, from 6 April 2022. It is after ten years that Kerala is playing host to the supreme decision-making body of the party. The party congress, normally held every three years, is an important event in the political-organisational life of the communist party — to critically assess the contemporary political-economic developments and its performance since the last congress, evolve a political-tactical line through extensive deliberations, and elect a new leadership.
Championing a politics of transformation, the CPI(M) crafts its analysis and responses by connecting domestic socio-economic issues with contemporary global developments, undergirded by the ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Its continued engagement with the international situation thereby finds reflection in the discussions at the party congress. Taking this forward, debates and conversations on the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the country itself, thus become inevitable. Being the largest among the communist parties in India, the CPI(M)’s views and analysis of contemporary China evinces much interest, especially among those who identify themselves with the mainstream left.
In keeping with its allyship with communist parties around the world, the CPI(M) has always projected the performance of communist parties-led national governments to showcase the superiority of socialism as a credible political alternative. In its draft political resolution for the 23rd congress, the party has noted China’s global rise in glowing terms, by laying out GDP figures, measures undertaken for poverty alleviation and the improvement in people’s living standards. Further, in mounting a stout defence of the CPC and expressing solidarity with it, the CPI(M) has sought to deflect criticisms of the behaviour of China on contentious topics like Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan. This has been more or less the standard practice adopted in previous party congresses.
To be sure, the 100-year-old CPC, as it moved from a revolutionary party to a ruling one, has helmed China’s transformation since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949—smashing feudal relations, promoting economic development and industrialisation, and raising people’s living standards. The post-1978 Reform and Opening Up (Gaige Kaifang) has reshaped China’s socio-economic contours. In fact, economic growth is the bedrock for the CPC to sustain its legitimacy to rule. However, the Chinese success story has also produced different forms of disparities—widening inequality, and unbalanced or inadequate development is a plaguing reality. China’s Gini coefficient has remained between 0.46 and 0.49 for the last two decades; while it has more than 1,000 billionaires, over 600 million Chinese people subsist on average monthly incomes of less than $140, admitted by Premier Li Keqiang himself in 2020.
The reforms have recast workplace relations and labour politics, resulting in heavy social and human costs. Regimented work practices, despotic managements, coercive discipline and chronic deficiencies in labour standards have heightened workers’ discontent and sharpened conflicts. These have been met with violent repression by the state. Working class in China today stands politically disenfranchised. The reforms have also impacted CPC’s class analysis—class antagonisms have been de-emphasised while the party-state seeks to channel politics to serve economic interests, by encouraging a whole range of incentives on individualism and the open market. Remaining deeply integrated with the world economy, China is also a strong defender of economic globalisation, as exemplified by Xi Jinping's speech at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 2017.
This de-ideologisation of China’s political economy has had a knock-on effect on CPC’s membership and cadre recruitment strategies. The traditional social base of the party—peasantry and industrial workers—has been gradually shrinking, and in turn, there has been a steady absorption of new classes of entrepreneurs, urban professionals and university graduates, underlining the technocratic turn. Xi Jinping’s appointment as the core leader with absolute centralisation of power overrides the convention for succession institutionalised by Deng Xiaoping. The CPC's adoption of the resolution on major achievements and historical experience on the party’s 100 years of existence in November 2021, has lionised Xi, and equated him with Mao and Deng.
Viewed against these contradictions and contentions, the CPI(M)’s articulations extolling its fraternal party comes across as glaringly partial, to those with deeper engagement and knowledge on China; to the extent, this resembles a literal copying of Chinese propaganda, lacking any critical analysis. For instance, the 23rd congress’ draft political resolution has praised China's efficient control of Covid-19 pandemic, and for supplying vaccines to more than hundred countries. The fascination with the country’s organisational capacity, however, elides the administrative mismanagement and cover up in the initial phase in Wuhan; in fact, its adamant ‘zero covid’ policy is only further exasperating people. Further, many countries have complained about the low efficacy of Chinese vaccines. Similarly, while the CPI(M) sees the Belt and Road Initiative in glorious terms for multi-polarity, it seems to be oblivious to the pushbacks and legitimate concerns in different host countries on the infrastructural projects and China’s overall resource diplomacy—debt burden, ecological degradation, cultural anxieties and labour conflicts. In fact, fascination with China is a visible trend among both the left (broad mainstream) and the right in the Indian political spectrum though both have different pickings—for the former, the socialist project under the leadership of a communist party, while for the latter, achieving high development by disciplining and repressing dissent.
It is not that the CPI(M) has not tried to evolve a more balanced and critical outlook on China. In the ideological resolution adopted at its 20th congress in Kozhikode in 2012, the articulation on China was precisely aimed in that direction. However, there does not seem to be a more sustained, deeper engagement since then. While news reports emerging from the conferences at the party’s lower levels in Kerala - preceding the congress - have shown the cadre expressing their sharp criticisms of China’s current trajectory, the dilly-dallying at the top makes things lop-sided. Clearly, there is a far greater need for CPI(M)—and others in the Indian mainstream Left—to have deeper study and engagement with China. Rather than labelling critics as people with vested interest, or only juxtaposing China vis-à-vis the US, it would be prudent to hear and accept criticisms, which in turn would only help in making even nuanced understandings better, sharper, and more evidence-based. Until then, China will remain as the elephant in the room causing discomfiture, inviting inconvenient questions and compelling awkward tight-rope walking.
Anand P Krishnan
Visiting Associate Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi